How to track a person in the wilderness – and avoid being tracked by a human being yourself.
To track a human being, make sure you first understand how to track an animal. The concepts involved are similar except of course, you are dealing with a person which is a much smarter target and thus, will attempt to use deception to throw you off the trail.
Preparing to track
Before you begin tracking a human, make sure you have essential gear and supplies ready, including water and food. Tracking can be time intensive and you do not want to be caught in the bush, tracking a dangerous human, without the proper supplies in hand. Since you will naturally aim to track silently and undetected, pay special attention to camouflage appropriate for the environment you will be tracking in. And because tracking requires intense concentration and stamina, before you begin to track a person, make sure you are alert and well fed.
Carry a paper tablet and pen to record notes and observations you make (you will be recording date/time, weather observations, distances, lengths, angles, creating drawings of the tracks, and more). If a map of the area is available, take it with you (preferably one you can write on to record tracking details). Bring a cellphone with a good camera for pictures of spoor (the technical word for any sign of a creature or trace by which the progress of someone or something may be followed).
Before leaving, check weather conditions, weather history, and weather forecasts. Incoming bad weather may force you to accelerate your search. A record of prior weather history will help you understand the conditions of tracks and signs that you find (how they were made and how old they are).
If you are in an unfamiliar area, if possible, take a local with you. Even expert trackers experience problems tracking in foreign areas. Locals will be more familiar with the local vegetation, weather conditions, and overall environment you are moving through.
Finally, when tracking a human, remain silent. This not only protects you from an ambush, but allows you to hear any noises your target may make while fleeing. If working in a group, hand signals should be used and thus, you should discuss and agree on signals before you begin.
Understand your target and the environment
Try to learn about the potential tracks and signs your target may leave behind. Shoe size and type of shoe plus any other information about the individual (e.g. height, weight, what they eat, what they are carrying with them) that may assist you when spoor (any sign of activity, track or otherwise, that your target leaves behind) is found. If possible, determine the capabilities of your target – their motives, skillset, traits, habits, tactics, and attitude. Having this information in hand will give you a tactical edge.
Next, study the environment you will be tracking in. In particular, know about the wildlife in the area as they may provide additional clues to your target’s location. Pay attention to any environmental dangers, sources of food and water, and potential ambush areas.
Finding human tracks and signs
If possible, carry a notebook with you to record observations. In addition to a record of spoor that is found, keep notes on tactics the target may have employed and their pattern of behavior. When recording your observations, remember to record everything you find including the date/time, weather conditions, and condition of the spoor (which may hint at its age).
Where to begin
If possible, begin by spooring in easy terrain such as soft ground and muddy areas – locations where spoor will be easiest to find. If no spoor is found in these “easy” areas, progressively move to more difficult terrain. Once spoor is found, move from sign to sign, recording each sign that you find in your notebook along with a picture of the spoor.
Human tracks and signs
Much of tracking a human means noticing what is out of context with the natural environment. Look first for the obvious signs such as footprints and leaves on plants that have been broken, bent, or turned so the light underside contrasts with the surroundings. If a shoeprint is found, draw it in your tablet taking note of any irregularities or other notable signs that may help distinguish the target from other human beings (unless the print is extremely clear, a drawing is typically better than a photograph).
Note the target’s walking pattern. Remember, women take smaller steps as do men carrying a heavy load. Running will leave more space between tracks and will distort the true track. In most cases, the toe will appear deeper, with little or no heel imprint. If a target is sprinting, the force of their steps may destroy the track entirely. In these cases, look at the “lines of force” to determine the direction the target is moving.
Especially with targets that are being hotly pursued, look for soil scatter. Soil and other debris can be thrown out of tracks by the target either kicking the ground or soil stuck to the sole of the target’s foot. Soil scatter is usually seen in front of the track (in line with the direction of travel) and is especially pronounced in loose ground cover such as snow.
Look for rocks that have been overturned. The exposed side of an overturned rock will be darker and you will see an impression in the ground where it once rested. Take into consideration the time of day, humidity, and temperature to determine how long the rock has been overturned.
Look for disturbed grass and bent blades (which will indicate the direction of travel). Watch for broken spider webs and look for shine on objects, especially hard surfaces, which may indicate a track. Don’t forget to look for any spoor unique to your situation. For instance, if the target is injured, look for blood.
Using animal signs to track a human
While tracking a human, pay attention to animals and animal spoor as you go. Many animals (including insects) will avoid humans and scurry to shelter when a human approaches. Pay attention to any absence of animal life in the area and remember, they will flee *away* from a human, typically downwind if possible. Listen for animals huffing, snorting, or running and note their direction of travel – something in that direction may have alarmed them.
General tracking method
While tracking, stay alert and focused. Remember to keep your head up slightly and look 15-20 yards in front of you. This will enable you to find spoor while remaining alert for any potential ambush (often times, a person being tracked may set a trap to stop of slow down his trackers). If you are tracking into the sun, look back every few yards to confirm your spoor (and to check that you are not walking over it).
When a track is found, use sideheading to view track details. Sideheading involves turning your head sideways and low to the ground to provide a better view of the track. With your head in this position, your bottom eye scans the ground (to about one foot away) while the top eye reads up to three feet away. Ridges and shadows in the tracks are much more visible using sideheading.
For example, in the picture below, the footprint is barely (hardly) visible when viewed from directly above (arrow indicates footprint).
But in this picture, the camera was held low, providing a line of sight similar to the line seen when sideheading is used. As you can see, when viewed from this angle, the ridges and shadows in the print are much clearer and easier to discern.
Instances where people track differently than animals
Remember, people differ from animals and may prop feet up on things when they sit. People must eat so look for signs not only of discarded food, but signs that food has been taken. For instance, look for missing fruit on trees or edible plants that have been raided.
People also climb over things. Look for evidence where shoes have rubbed over things when crossed. Watch for rubs where the target may have scuffed tree bark or scraped mud (intentionally or not) off of their shoes. Since shoes pick up material from the ground (this sign is called a “transfer”), look for trace soil on other objects such as rocks and tree stumps. Shining a light at a low angle may help transfer signs become more visible.
People also leave trash. Look for discarded ration packages, food tins, possibly even dropped documents or supplies. People also carry things that animals do not. Look for compression signs from objects laid down by the target such as the impression of tools like rifle butts, clubs, crutches, etc.
When your target attempts to throw you off the track
Be aware that a target may attempt to trick the tracker. For instance, they may walk in reverse or tie their shoes on backward. Do not look at which direction the tracks are pointing but rather, read the sign within the track to determine the target’s direction of travel. You can also check which part of the track is deepest to determine direction of travel and since walking backward is not natural, be alert for soil scatter that the target may drag out of the track when stepping.
Targets may change their shoes or purposely alter their gait. These tricks do indeed make tracking more difficult (see How to Avoid Being Tracked section below). If they’ve changed their shoes, refer to your measurements of the target’s stride and track them by pattern. With regards to an altered gait, look for signs that the gait is unnatural. For instance, unusually deep heel marks may indicate the target is taking unnaturally long strides. Note that in all cases, if the target is aware they are being tracked, they may attempt an ambush. A target will often begin disguising their tracks right before an ambush or when they are about to bed down to rest or change direction.
Resuming the track if trail has been lost
If you lose the spoor, go back to the last positive sign. Confirm the last positive sign and mark it. Look 25-30 yards ahead and sweep your eyes from the center to the left and then sweep back to center. Do the same for the right side. Each time you sweep, pause during the sweep to bring your eye back toward your feet in an attempt to relocate the spoor.
If the spoor still cannot be found, begin a search pattern to relocate the tracks. The most common search patterns are the cross-grain method and the 360-degree sweep.
Cross-grain search method (also called Sweep Pattern)
The cross-grain method uses a squared-off zig-zag sort of search pattern (see diagram on right). Stand at the point of the last spoor found and sight an object in front of you, about 100 yards away. Turn to your right (90 degrees perpendicular to the object you sighted in the distance) and walk about 50 yards searching for spoor. Then turn to your left 90 degrees (now facing the direction of the object you sighted) and walk about 25 yards. Turn left again, parallel to the first line walked (and perpendicular to the object you sighted in the distance) and walk about 100 yards (at the halfway point, you will pass your original spoor on the left). After 100 yards, turn right, walk 25 yards, turn right and walk 100 yards, and so on.
360-degree search method
The 360 degree sweep method is the most intensive search pattern requiring you make ever-increasing circles from the last spoor found, outward until the next spoor is found. This method can be intense sometimes requiring a circle of a mile or more before the track is picked up again.
Tracking multiple people
If you are tracking more than one person, it is important to understand how many people you are tracking. To determine this, step off one pace (about 36 inches) next to the set of tracks. Lay out a space about 18 inches wide across the tracks. Inside this 18×36 inch box, count the number of full and partial tracks and divide by 2 to determine the number of people being tracked.
Be aware that multiple people fleeing together will work together. They may split up or they may travel together in which case, they will double their efforts to throw you off the trail.
How to avoid being tracked by a human being
There are several actions you can take to avoid being tracked yourself. Most importantly, take into consideration what you know about tracking and use that knowledge to disguise or eliminate your own signs. As you are fleeing, imagine the tracker following your signs and adjust your actions accordingly. For instance, use the features of the environment (e.g. roads, railways) to cover your spoor. When crossing roads or streams, look for the option to use trees or rocks to cross without leaving spoor on the ground.
You may also purposely leave decoy spoor to confuse your trackers. Decoy tracks are especially effective around locations where your tracker may have difficulty maintaining the trail (e.g. near hard surfaces or roads). However, if the decoy tracks are too obvious, your tracker will recognize the deceit.
- Wear the same shoes as your tracker.
- Use animals (cattle are especially good) and wildlife to cover your tracks.
- Make all of your movements in the rain or before a snow.
- If travelling in a group, try to step inside each other’s tracks. It may also help to occasionally move in a formation rather than a straight line.
- Travel through populated areas to cover your tracks.
- Walk backward or tie your shoes on backward.
- Change your shoes periodically.
- Purposely alter your gait.
- Brush out your tracks. Alternatively (or occasionally) leave decoy tracks in a false direction.
- Carry a stick and purposely bend grass and branches back with it.
- Walk on the inside of the foot to avoid leaving a heel or toe mark.
Avoiding dogs and ambushing your tracker
If dogs are assisting the trackers, use pepper spray and/or ammonia on your tracks.
Lastly, if time and circumstances permit, booby trap or ambush your trackers. If dogs are involved, take out the dogs and dog handler first (others in the party will likely be unable to work with the dogs). The dog handler is also typically easier to take out because they almost always lead the search party and typically have less survival/defensive/combat skills.
Practice human tracking
Like anything else, you must practice tracking to become good at it. Places like parks and public trails offer excellent locations for tracking practice.
- Don’t move so quickly that you overlook telltale signs. Be patient.
- Learn to use your sense of smell as well as your sight and hearing.
- Don’t just observe the tracks: interpret what they mean.
- Get to know your enemy: study the target’s’ operating procedures, habits and equipment.
- Be persistent: don’t lose the will to win when you lose the spoor/trail. Try to find it again.
Combat rules of tracking
- Tracker sets the pace.
- Record the start point.
- Always know your position.
- Confirm on aerial spoor.
- Keep in visual contact.
- Identify the correct tracks.
- Never walk on ground spoor.
- Get into the quarry’s mind.
- Never go beyond the last spoor